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Wonder Drugs and Interpreting the News

Posted 10/6/2014

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  It is so easy to get very excited and very misled by news reports. How often have you read something or had a friend call to tell you about a news story purporting a cancer cure is just around the corner? The old advice about "If something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn't" surely applies here. We all know that the primary goal of news is to increase readership or listeners or sell papers (or online sites), not to fully unravel the intricacies of a story. Progress in cancer care is big news, but it always feels unfair when the headlines scream "CURE", and we know that is, sadly, very unlikely.

  Anything that you read needs to be read with the proverbial grain of salt (and, FYI, here is the background of that expression from There is also a story that Pliny the Elder wrote about Pompey's seizing of the palace of Mithridates (in Pliny's Historia Naturalis). Pompey found the king's fabled secret antidote against poisons that had protected the king against assassins. This antidote had 72 ingredients and the last line of the formula read "to be taken fasting, plus a grain of salt (Latin cum grano salis)." Pliny's remark supposedly begat the use of this saying, which came to mean 'to accept something with reservations, to avoid swallowing something whole'.)

  A recent story that began in the English press is an example of this. "Wonder drug to fight cancer and Alzheimer's disease within 10 years," was the headline in The Daily Telegraph. The story went on to explain that a study that provided new information about the role of the protein N-myristoylation (NMT) in human cells and a
mechanism that inhibits it. The study's authors suggested NMT could be involved in the development and progression of a range of diseases, including cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease. Note the could and the lack of certainty or inevitability.

  From NHS Choices comes this excellent piece about this particular headline and the need to read and think critically. Here is the start and a link:

Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from Imperial College London and was funded by Cancer Research UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the European Union, and the Medical Research Council.
It was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications.
While The Daily Telegraph's hyped-up headline was a little over the top, the coverage was accurate and balanced. Optimistic quotes from the study authors, such as, "Eventually we hope this would simply be a pill you could take. It will be perhaps 10 years or so to a drug 'on the market' but there are many hurdles to get over", were counterbalanced with a note of realism from Cancer Research UK's senior science officer: "The next steps will be to develop this idea and make a drug – but there's a way to go before we'll know if it's safe and effective in people".


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